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Best expansion seasons in Major League Soccer history

Scott Halleran // Getty Images

Best expansion seasons in Major League Soccer history

The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field.

Major League Soccer continues to grow in popularity and competition. According to Front Office Sports, MLS broke revenue, merchandise, viewership, and attendance records in the 2022 season. Part of the success stems from the league’s continued expansion, as MLS added several new teams and markets over the past few years.

At the start of the 2023 MLS season in February, St. Louis City SC made its debut, making it the first majority female-owned club in league history. The MLS’ 29th franchise is locally owned, too.

The addition of St. Louis comes only a year after Charlotte FC made its MLS debut. Charlotte finished right outside the playoffs under head coach Christian Lattanzio—only eight of 21 MLS expansion teams made the postseason in their first season. Two of those teams won the MLS Cup in their inaugural season. No expansion team in the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB have had an expansion team finish its first year with a championship, although the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights came close with a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. (This doesn’t include the founding teams who were part of a league’s first season.)

JustWatch ranked the 10 best expansion seasons in MLS history using data from and other sources, including team sites. Expansion seasons are considered to be the first season in a team’s history in MLS. Teams were first ranked on playoff progression. Ties were broken by points, goal difference, and goals for. All tiebreakers were calculated on a per match basis to account for varying season lengths.

Founding teams from the inaugural MLS season in 1996 were excluded from this list. Clubs with history in other leagues prior to joining MLS (such as Seattle and Portland) were ranked on their first MLS seasons only. Houston Dynamo were counted as an expansion team since MLS does not count its earlier seasons as a franchise in San Jose as part of its history. Further, the current San Jose franchise is not counted as an expansion team because MLS includes the first San Jose team as part of its history. This is not the case for Miami, however. Inter Miami CF’s history is separate from the Miami Fusion.



Just 4 MLS expansion teams have broken 1.5 points per game in their first season

Chart showing the number of points per match first-year expansion teams earned throughout MLS history.

MLS awards soccer’s standard of three points for a win, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss. League-wide, teams earn an average of 1.4 points per match. New teams usually fare much worse—the 21 expansion teams in MLS history averaged 1.1 points per match in their first season.

On top of that, just four expansion clubs—Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, and Los Angeles FC—have managed to eclipse 1.5 points per match, a marker that would equal a .500 record in other sports. Last season, seven out of MLS’s 28 teams earned 1.5 points or more per match.

Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto // Getty Images

#10. CF Montreal (as the Montreal Impact)

Alessandro Nesta of the Montreal Impact controls the ball in a game.

– Expansion season: 2012
– Playoffs: Did not qualify
– Wins-draws-losses: 12-6-16
– Points: 42 (1.24 per match)
– Goals for: 45 (1.32)
– Goals against: 51 (1.50)
– Goal difference: -6 (-0.18)
– Top scorer: Patrice Bernier (9 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Donovan Ricketts

CF Montréal started off as the Montréal Impact in 1993. After several seasons in other leagues, the Impact won two playoff championships and seven Canadian championships. In 2012, the Impact made its debut as the 19th team in the MLS and the third team in Canada in the league.

During its inaugural season, the team finished two places away from the playoff. The Impact changed its name to CF Montréal in 2021, with owner Joey Saputo saying, “To make an impact, we need to retire the Impact.” The club has been in the MLS playoffs four times.

Alex Menendez // Getty Images

#9. Orlando City

Kaka #10 celebrates after he scores the first goal in team history.

– Expansion season: 2015
– Playoffs: Did not qualify
– Wins-draws-losses: 12-8-14
– Points: 44 (1.29 per match)
– Goals for: 46 (1.35)
– Goals against: 56 (1.65)
– Goal difference: -10 (-0.29)
– Top scorer: Cyle Larin (17 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Tally Hall

In 2013, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced Orlando would become the league’s 21st team for its 20th season. Orlando City debuted a few years later and Adrian Heath was the head coach for the inaugural season. Heath lasted only 55 matches with Orlando City and the club cycled through coaches the next few years. Some stability was found in Cyle Larin, who was the team’s leading scorer for its first three seasons. Orlando finished 2022 with a 2-0 loss to Montréal in the postseason, ending one of its best seasons in history, which included a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy.

Ira L. Black – Corbis // Getty Images

#8. Inter Miami

Captain Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi of Inter Miami CF take the ball down the pitch.

– Expansion season: 2020
– Playoffs: Lost in play-in round
– Wins-draws-losses: 7-3-13
– Points: 24 (1.04 per match)
– Goals for: 25 (1.09)
– Goals against: 35 (1.52)
– Goal difference: -10 (-0.43)
– Top scorer: Lewis Morgan (5 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Luis Robles

The MLS announced a return to Miami, as Inter Miami was announced as the 25th team in 2018. Diego Alonso was the team’s first head coach. After the MLS is Back bubble, Inter Miami secured its first home win over Orlando City SC. Miami’s inaugural season was its best season to date in 2022. Miami made the playoffs before losing 3-0 to New York FC in the first round. The team made several big acquisitions to build on its breakout season, including acquiring former MLS and MLS Cup MVP Josef Martinez.

Icon Sportswire // Getty Images

#7. Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s Héctor Villalba celebrates with Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona after scoring a goal.

– Expansion season: 2017
– Playoffs: Lost in first round
– Wins-draws-losses: 15-10-9
– Points: 55 (1.62 per match)
– Goals for: 70 (2.06)
– Goals against: 40 (1.18)
– Goal difference: 30 (0.88)
– Top scorer: Josef Martínez (19 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Alec Kann

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank brought the league’s 22nd team to Atlanta and the club wasted no time making the playoffs in its debut season, under head coach Gerardo Martino.

United continued its quick success, winning the MLS Cup in 2018, only a year after joining the league. Josef Martinez scored two goals in the championship to cap off a year where he was named MLS MVP and the MLS Cup MVP. Atlanta owns several MLS records for attendance and the club won the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup. United missed the playoffs for only the second time in its history in 2022.

Matthew Ashton – AMA // Getty Images

#6. Los Angeles FC

Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates after scoring a goal.

– Expansion season: 2018
– Playoffs: Lost in first round
– Wins-draws-losses: 16-9-9
– Points: 57 (1.68 per match)
– Goals for: 68 (2.00)
– Goals against: 52 (1.53)
– Goal difference: 16 (0.47)
– Top scorer: Carlos Vela (14 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Tyler Miller

Los Angeles was awarded a new franchise only a few days after Chivas USA folded in 2014. Chivas was one of two teams to represent Los Angeles for 10 seasons. In 2017, LAFC hired Bob Bradley—a two-time MLS Coach of the Year and former U.S. men’s national team coach. The new franchise also built a new stadium not far from downtown Los Angeles. LAFC won its inaugural game versus Seattle and became only the fifth expansion team to earn a playoff spot in its debut MLS season. LAFC capped the 2022 season off by winning the MLS Cup.

Allsport // Getty Images

#5. Miami Fusion

Carlos Valderrama of the Miami Fusion in action during the game against the D.C. United.

– Expansion season: 1998
– Playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
– Wins-shootout wins-losses: 15-5-17
– Points: 35 (1.09 per match)
– Goals for: 46 (1.44)
– Goals against: 68 (2.13)
– Goal difference: -22 (-0.69)
– Top scorer: Diego Serna (11 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Jeff Cassar

The Fusion were announced as one of the league’s first two expansion teams alongside the Chicago Fire. The clubs played their inaugural games against each other, with Chicago winning.

Miami managed to earn a playoff spot, despite changing head coaches in its first season, but eventually were eliminated in the playoffs by D.C. United. The Fusion finished 2001 with the league’s best record and won a playoff series. However, the league’ first attempt in Miami ended with the team folding in 2002. The Miami franchise shuttered alongside the Tampa Bay Mutiny due to dwindling revenue.

Ira L. Black – Corbis // Getty Images

#4. Nashville

Daniel Rios of Nashville SC celebrates the game-winning goal with Captain Dax McCarty.

– Expansion season: 2020
– Playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
– Wins-draws-losses: 8-8-7
– Points: 32 (1.39 per match)
– Goals for: 24 (1.04)
– Goals against: 22 (0.96)
– Goal difference: 2 (0.09)
– Top scorers: Daniel Armando Ríos, Hany Mukhtar (4 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Joe Willis

Nashville’s MLS dreams started with a supporter-owned NPSL team in 2014. Six years and a few ownership sales later, MLS awarded the city a new club. The club became the sixth expansion team to make the playoffs and advanced farther than any expansion team in over 20 years. Nashville was led by MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, along with center back Dave Romney, who didn’t miss a minute all season. Nashville’s 11 shutouts in 2020 led the league and they made the playoffs each of the next two seasons. Head coach Gary Smith has been the team’s only coach at the MLS level.

Jeff Gross // Getty Images

#3. Seattle Sounders

Fredy Montero of the Seattle Sounders FC celebrates a goal.

– Expansion season: 2009
– Playoffs: Lost in conference semifinals
– Wins-draws-losses: 12-11-7
– Points: 47 (1.57 per match)
– Goals for: 38 (1.27)
– Goals against: 29 (0.97)
– Goal difference: 9 (0.30)
– Top scorer: Fredy Montero (12 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Kasey Keller

Seattle finally landed an MLS club in 2007 and the team hired two-time MLS champion Sigi Schmid as its coach. The Sounders started their first season 3-0, before ending with a playoff loss to Houston. Over the years, Seattle has won two MLS Cup titles and four U.S. Open Cups. The 2022 season was the Sounder’s first and only season finishing outside of the postseason, ending a league-record 13-year run of consecutive playoff berths. In 2023, the Sounders became the first MLS team to play in the FIFA Club World Cup, a collection of the best club soccer teams in the world.

Rich Schultz // Getty Images

#2. Houston Dynamo

Houston Dynamo’s Brian Ching, Ryan Mullan, Brad Davis, and Stuart Holden react after goalkeeper made a save on a shot.

– Expansion season: 2006
– Playoffs: Won MLS Cup
– Wins-draws-losses: 11-13-8
– Points: 46 (1.44 per match)
– Goals for: 44 (1.38)
– Goals against: 40 (1.25)
– Goal difference: 4 (0.13)
– Top scorers: Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario (11 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Pat Onstad

Technically, Houston Dynamo relocated from San Jose and were that city’s original MLS team. However, the San Jose owners moved the club to Houston after failed stadium negotiations (MLS separates Houston’s history from San Jose’s). Nonetheless, Houston got its name from an original United Soccer League team from the 1980s. Dynamo made MLS history by becoming the first expansion team to win the MLS Cup in both of its first two seasons. Houston has only made the postseason twice in the last decade. Perhaps looking for a reboot, the club changed its colors and name in 2020.

Matthew Ashton – EMPICS // Getty Images

#1. Chicago Fire

The victorious Chicago Fire team celebrate with the Alan Rothenberg trophy.

– Expansion season: 1998
– Playoffs: Won MLS Cup
– Wins-shootout wins-losses: 20-2-12
– Points: 56 (1.75 per match)
– Goals for: 62 (1.94)
– Goals against: 45 (1.41)
– Goal difference: 17 (0.53)
– Top scorer: Ante Razov (10 goals scored)
– Goalkeeper: Zach Thornton

In 1997, Chicago announced its MLS club on the 126th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. Bob Bradley was the team’s first coach and they defeated the two-time defending champions D.C. United to win the MLS Cup in their inaugural season. Chicago then became the second MLS team to win “The Double,” by defeating the Columbus Crew, 2-1, in the U.S. Cup Final. Chicago won the U.S. Open Cup again in 2000, 2003, and 2006. The Fire have struggled in recent years, only making the playoffs once over the last 10 years. Chicago re-designed its crest and visuals in 2021.

This story originally appeared on JustWatch and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

Article Topic Follows: stacker-Sports

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